Special to Page 2
In 2001, Jim Bouton came out with the last version of his classic "Ball Four," entitled, fittingly, "Ball Four: The Final Pitch." For those of you too young to remember, "Ball Four" was the book that drew back the curtains of major league baseball, exposing the kinds of things that made few headlines before 1970, when it was published.
Since Bouton deserves much, if not all, of the credit for blowing the lid off greenies, the sex lives of ballplayers and dumb moves by baseball honchos, Page 2 thought it would be a good time to see what he thinks of what's going on in today's chaotic version of the U.S. national pastime. So we sent Jeff Merron, who had 10 questions burning a hole in his pocket, to take them out and try them on Bouton.
1. Were you shocked and surprised at the revelation that lots of ballplayers are taking steroids?
Jim Bouton: No, not at all. How could I be surprised? In the 1970s, half of the guys in the big leagues were taking greenies, and if we had steroids, we would have taken those, too. I said in "Ball Four," if there was a pill that could guarantee you would win 20 games but would take five years off of your life, players would take it. The only thing I didn't know at the time was the name.
Would you have taken them if they were around in your day?
Bouton: I splashed DMSO on my shoulder. That was a drug used for horses. Whitey Ford and I spread it all over our arms in 1965 or 1966. I tried a greenie once, to see what it was like, but all it did was make me too jumpy. But if it had helped me win the game, I would have taken another. I took a lot of cortisone shots. There's only a difference of degree.
2. Should steroids be banned?
Bouton: I think so, because it's pretty clear that they're no good for your health. I think pep pills should be banned because if they're not, they get handed out like candy. And players think it must be OK. At least if they're banned it will cause some players to pause. If they give someone an advantage, it's unfair to the ones who don't take them.
3. Do you think there's something "tainted" about today's game, because the players are juiced?
4. Jose Canseco is talking about a tell-all book. What do you think? Will it top "Ball Four"?
Bouton: I hate being mentioned in the same breath with Canseco, who seems to be writing a book out of revenge. I think a book has to have more to it than telling all. It has to be a good story and there has to be a good storyteller. What's Canseco's story? Did he take notes, keep a diary?
5. The other big "scandal" story these days is that there's at least one gay baseball player, and he's not Mike Piazza. Does this deserve to be a big story? Do you think baseball players are "ready" to accept gay players?
Bouton: I think they are ready, as ready as players were for Jackie Robinson. Enough players will accept him at first, and those that don't accept him, if he's good enough, will eventually have to. You can't wait for every single player to accept a gay player.
The first gay player is going to have to be a pretty good ballplayer. I think it will be healthy for the country for a good player to come out. Then, instead of the question being who is gay or not, the focus will be on the person who asks the question. If I were Piazza, when asked I would have said, a) It's none of your business, and b) the real story is, "How can you have the nerve to ask such a question?"
Bouton: By that time "Ball Four" had moved out of the category of something I did, and into the category of something someone else did. I never thought of the book getting that kind of reaction so many years later, so it's hard to take credit for it. "Ball Four" became a time-capsule look back at a period of time.
It's not just that way with "Ball Four" but with any diary. It's almost the most reliable barometer of what happened at a particular time to a particular group of people. When they do the Civil War documentaries on TV, the most valuable material they've got is diaries of the soldiers. There's Anne Frank's diary. The diary becomes a contemporaneous look at another time, and the more time goes by, the more valuable the diary becomes. Can you imagine finding a diary about an Inca slave? We'd learn more about the entire civilization from that than we know so far.
Will it still have the same relevance in 50 years?
Bouton: It has a chance, because it's a diary, and lots of the things people say in it are hysterical, and it's readable. Also, it was an interesting time. It was a diary of not just a baseball team, but also of the period of time. Who knew that the 1960s would be seen as a transformational time in the nation's history? It was better that I kept a diary in 1969, with the Pilots, than with the Yankees in 1964. The star player doesn't notice anything, but the guy in the bullpen does.
7. You were inducted last year into the Shrine of the Eternals at the Baseball Reliquary, along with Jimmy Piersall and Satchel Paige. Did you ever expect such an honor?
Bouton: Hell no. Wonderful company there. It's a piece of real baseball being preserved in the right way. Preserving the stories of the game, the legends, traditions -- not the statistics or achievements.
Will there ever be a Seattle Pilots Old-Timer's Day? Would you go?
Bouton: I would certainly go. I'm trying to organize one -- check out my website. But baseball would prefer that the Seattle Pilots didn't exist. It reminds people of an unhappy part of baseball history. It involved baseball doing a bad thing [moving the Pilots to Milwaukee after only one year] and having to make up for it [by promising Seattle the next available expansion franchise]. And it would bring attention to "Ball Four," and the people who run the game are still of the same mind, at the top levels, the ownership level. [They don't want the book to get attention.]
8. What do you think of Bud Selig?
Bouton: I didn't like his ideas about contraction, but I don't think it would be a bad idea if you contracted the worst team in baseball, which may be the Brewers. He's the perfect guy to be commissioner because not too many people are willing to stand up and be the public face for obstinacy. Very few people are willing to do that. In that way he's sort of like Bowie Kuhn. But at least now they have an owner as commissioner, not just someone in their pocket -- at least they're not trying to hide anything.
Bouton: All you're doing is deciding who gets the money, the owners or the players. The owners have tried to get people to believe that if the players accepted a salary cap the ticket prices would go down. The ticket prices aren't going to go down -- it's not going to happen.
It's bad marketing by Major League Baseball to call players greedy and overpaid. The reason it's bad marketing is that the players are the product, and they're turning people against their own product. And sports is now the only entertainment business in which the salaries of the entertainers is the issue. Nobody cares how much Jack Nicholson makes -- you either like his movies and go see them, or you don't.
10. The great last line of "Ball Four" is, "You spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time." Do you still believe that? Is the ball still gripping you?
Bouton: It's not gripping me anymore, or else I'd be coaching somewhere. But that's how it was for me; I think it's very true that people will endeavor to do something or try something, and they think they understand the reasons for doing it at the time, but after they do it, they discover there were other factors that they didn't know of at the time.
With "Ball Four," I thought I was just keeping a diary and sharing the fun of baseball. In the end, it turns out I was doing something else, and I didn't even realize it at the time. The recognition I got from it was unintended. I was doing one thing, but something else was actually happening.